Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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“Majors in stunning visuals; minors in everything else.”

I really wanted to like this. Seriously, this had the potential to be thoroughly kick-ass, innovative and visually stunning, in a way never before seen in action heroine cinema. However, the end result is only somewhat kick-ass, and might have felt more innovative. if Ghost in the Shell hadn’t already been strip-mined for ideas over the past two decades, as noted over the weekend, by everyone from James Cameron to the Wachowskis. Rather than pushing the imagination envelope further, Sanders and the film’s script seems content to coast along on the original ideas, and these are no longer as cutting-edge as they need to be.

The story still concerns the Major (Johansson), here the marginal survivor of a terrorist attack, who has her brain transplanted into an entirely artificial body by the Hanka Robotics corporation. She has become the top operative of a government security group Section 9, working alongside somewhat-cyberized Batou (Asbæk) and the still entirely human Togusa, under the command of Aramaki (Kitano). Hanka becomes the target of a series of cyber-terrorist attacks, investigated by the Major, despite experiencing “glitches” of audio-visual hallucinations. The culprit is revealed to be a hacker known as Kuze (Pitt). Turns out he has more than a slight connection to the Major, being in possession of disturbing information about her origin, as well as her life before becoming a full-body cyborg.

The story has a very clever approach to the whole “whitewashing” controversy: at least initially, rather than Motoko Kusanagi, she has been reinvented by Hanka Robotics as Mira Killian, who give her a whole new set of memories, which may or may not be accurate. It’s this quest for her real identity which drives the plot, containing more than a few echoes of Robocop. And that’s an illustration of the main problem here: it feels less like anything cutting edge, than a conglomeration of elements taken from films which has gone before. That half of these stole from the animated Ghost, doesn’t help the live-action version much.

There are are some aspects which work. It looks lovely, and I can’t say I felt shortchanged by having gone to the cinema to see it: though even here, it’s like Blade Runner with less rain and more daylight. The cast are good too. Johansson has the correct deadpan approach, Asbæk is ideal for the hulking Batou and Kitano knocks it out of the park, as the most bad-ass bureaucrat you’ve ever seen [this will be absolutely no surprise if you’ve seen classic Kitano films such as Violent Cop]. However, in action, it only works in intermittent moments, such as the raid against the hacked geisha robots, or the battle against the spider-tank – the latter certainly lives up to expectations from the other versions.

The aspect which did work better than in the animation was the blurred line between humans and cyborgs, which is more striking when you have real people involved. There’s one scene, for instance, where Kuze is talking to the Major, and he simply reaches out and lifts a quarter-panel of her face off. It’s a startling image; truth be told, perhaps too startling, as I spent the rest of the scene thinking, “SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS MISSING PART OF HER HEAD!” rather than about the conversation between the two characters. I’ve also heard a number of people say this was a case where 3D genuinely improved the experience – we saw it in 2D, in deference to Chris’s motion sickness, which ended 3D viewing for us at Avatar.

At a brisk 106 minutes, it doesn’t hang around, though the story appears to shift gears at about the half-way point, and becomes more focused and driven. It’s still barely able to scratch the surface of the universe: having watched four movies, 52 TV episodes and four hour-long OVAs over the past couple of months, I was painfully aware of how much was going on that had to be utterly discarded here – yet they still found time to include a number of scenes e.g. the water fight, which felt inserted, purely as homages to the original material. Did appreciate the way languages were completely fluid: Aramaki spoke all his lines in Japanese, yet the Major was entirely in English, as if this was as much a stylistic choice as the shape of your “shell.”

Unfortunately, it looks like this will likely be one and done for the franchise, with the film being crushed at the North American box-office by – pardon me while I throw up – Baby Boss. If the makers are to recoup their investment, it will need to follow in the footsteps of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and perform well in overseas markets. [RE: TFC has now taken 11x as much in foreign markets as it did in the US/Canada] Action heroine fans will be hoping for better results on June 2, when Wonder Woman opens.

Dir: Rupert Sanders
Star: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

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“Not be confused with the old movie.”

Really, that was the best name they could come up with? Oh, well. “A rose by any other name…” Released in Japan in June 2015, more or less on the 20th anniversary of the “not-so-new movie”, I guess, it’s the most recent incarnation of the animated universe. This is more or less a direct follow-on from the Arise series, following up on the “Firestarter” arc, the name for both a wizard-class hacker and the virus they have created. As such, you’d definitely fare better if you’ve seen that series first, since (as we’ll see) it has enough issues with new plot elements, and doesn’t bother with much explanation about any pre-existing ones.  This feature is also using the same redesigned character designs, and with the Major (Sakamoto) operating in conjunction with Section 9 and Aramaki (Juku), rather than under his direct control.

The main incident under investigation is the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister, blown up with a briefcase bomb, during a meeting. That’s the simple synopsis. The more accurate one would involve a complex and tangled web of government departments and their intersection with elements of the military-industrial complex. It’s a alphabet soup blitzkrieg of acronyms: MOD, MOC, DFA. Or was it MFA? Either way, it becomes awfully hard to keep track of who is doing what to whom, for the sake of which alliance. Perhaps it makes more sense if you have a pre-existing awareness of the intricacies of the Japanese federal bureaucracy. Otherwise, you’ll be left scratching your head and/or yawning for significant chunks of this.

Which is a shame, as there are some aspects which are still enjoyable. I particularly liked the idea that the head villainess actually uses the same make and model of prosthetic body as Major Kusanagi, so in effect she is hunting her own doppelganger. This ties together with more information on her childhood, in a cybernetic orphanage, which is being run for purposes that are very far from charitable. There is more of a sense of team here. The Major refers to her colleagues as “parts,” something they take to mean they’re expendable – or it could actually be high praise, given the nature of her existence. It’s symptomatic of the ambivalence about technology that has been present throughout, over a period now spanning two decades.

The action is as impressive as it was in Arise, with a number of show-stopping set-pieces, pitting Kusanagi and her team against a range of opponents, from near-human to entirely artificial. There are also surprisingly poignant moments, such as their questioning of a former active-duty soldier whose job is now to receive the last words of his colleagues. This renewed his purpose in life, after he had been left behind to wallow in his obsolete prosthetic body. But these elements just make the murky plotting all the more frustrating, and I can’t help suspecting the writers confused obscurity with depth.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star: Maaya Sakamoto, Ikkyuu Juku, Kenichirou Matsuda, Tarusuke Shingaki

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

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“Brains and brawn.”

Much more a reboot, complete with a redesigned lead, than any kind of sequel, this four-part series of hour-long episodes received a theatrical release in Japan, before being released on DVD. In a typically confusing GitS universe approach, it was then broadcast on TV in 10 episodes, with extra material added. I mention this only because it’s the four-part version which will be reviewed here. It starts before Major Kusanagi (Maxwell) joins up with her boss, Aramaki (Swasey): initially, she’s part of the 501st, a counter-cyberterrorism group which owns her cyborg body. However, Aramaki offers her the opportunity to go freelance under him, doing similar work, and assemble a team who will largely be free from bureaucratic oversight.

Over the course of the four episodes, she recruits others whose names will be familiar. For example, ex-Ranger Batou (Sabat), comes aboard after initially being part of a team working against Kusanagi, who are trying to prove government complicity in war crimes. This is an interesting change, compared to the previous versions, which always seemed to join Section 9 “in progress,” and provides some intriguing insight into what makes – literally, to some extent – the Major the way she is. For, in this incarnation, we discover that she has been in her prosthetic body since birth, and has never known any other way of life.

The other main focus is the dangers of a society which is totally reliant on technology, because of the horrible opportunities for exploitation it presents to terrorists. Even the heroine is not immune to being hacked, and one of the themes is the implications of a world in which you can’t trust your own memories, when these could be false implants. This makes police work incredibly hard, because as is pointed out, even if someone admits to committing a crime, they could actually be entirely innocent. This illustrates the nicely cynical streak here, concentrating heavily on the potential downsides of scientific advancement.

I found the main strength to be the much better balance struck between the intellectual and action elements. If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know I’ve rolled my eyes at the uber-dense lumps of philosophy, shoehorned in for no reason more necessary than, apparently, to prove how well-read the script-writer was at college. Here, those are refreshingly absent, although you still need to be paying damn good attention to the plot: I made the mistake of drifting away in episode 2 for a bit, and finally had to admit defeat, cranking things back to re-watch what I’d missed.

The battle sequences are awesome. Whether it’s the Major going up against another enhanced human, or taking on a massive battle-tank which has been hijacked by a pair of “ghosts,” these are slickly animated and edited with precision, in a way from which many live-action films could learn. They’re also incredibly violent, both on a personal level and in terms of the material carnage caused by them. But such is the joy of cyborgs, they can take a lickin’ and keep right on tickin’… The result is a rare combination of action and intelligence, that offers something for both the lizard portions of the brain, and the more highly-developed parts.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star (voice): Elizabeth Maxwell, John Swasey, John Swasey, Jason Douglas

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

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“Shellfishly indulgent.”

This is largely included purely for completeness: if this had been a stand-alone film, it likely wouldn’t have qualified, not reaching the mandatory minimum quota of action heroineness. For in this sequel, Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) has abandoned even her artificial physical form, for life entirely inside the Internet. Her presence in this is therefore more spiritual, with Batou (Yamadera) referring to her as his “guardian angel”, and her impact is more felt than seen – particularly in its ramification for Batou, whose degree of cybernetic enhancement is not much lower than hers. She only returns to a tangible persona in the final scene, where Batou has to take on a near-endless stream of combat-reprogrammed sex robots. My, that’s a phrase I never thought I’d be writing…

So this is much more Batou’s story, as he and the much-less enhanced Togusa (Ōki) investigate Section 9’s latest case. In it, the “gynoid” sex robots created by tech company LOCUS SOLUS, are involved in a series of their owners’ deaths, which have been covered up and settled quietly, out of court. Section 9 are brought in, over concerns the incidents are a prelude to a cyber-attack by terrorists. Instead, they discover human “ghosts” are being implanted into the gynoids, to make them more realistic. It eventually turns out LOCUS SOLUS, from their floating headquarters (conveniently in international water) have been kidnapping young girls, in order to repeatedly copy the victim’s personality into their robots – a process which eventually drives the source insane.

It’s quite a trip for Batou and Togusa to get there, however. They have to handle a very pissed-off Yakuza gang, whose boss was one of the gynoid victims – they don’t respond well to Batou’s style of investigation, shall we say. Then there’s Kim, an ex-military hacker who can hack the pair’s cyber-brain, and twist the reality they experience into a pretzel. This is where the mix of animation styles is perhaps at its best: Oshii opts neither for pure CGI nor traditional hand-drawn, instead combining them in a way that uses the strengths of each to good effect.

But it probably is too damn cerebral for its own good. Per Wikipedia, “quotations in the film come from Buddha, Confucius, Descartes, the Old Testament, Meiji-era critic Saitō Ryokuu, Richard Dawkins, Max Weber, Jacob Grimm, Plato, John Milton, 14th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, the Tridentine Mass, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie, French Enlightenment philosopher and author of Man a Machine.” This is a common problem for Oshii: see Avalon or Garm Wars, for other examples of his work which also struggle to hold up under the philosophical weight he throws onto genre fare.

Look, I’m not averse to intellectual concepts in film. But when it comes to action film, they need to be a garnish rather than the main ingredient – something to tickle the higher parts of the brain, while the lizard areas enjoy the spectacle and gratuitous violence. While those latter aspects are present, it comes with indigestible lumps of philosophy, that I would rather had been present in lesser quantity, if not left out of the dish entirely.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Akio Ōtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Tamio Ōki, Atsuko Tanaka

Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex

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“We need to go deeper…”

Despite the critical and commercial success of the original film, it took a while for anything further to emerge from the GitS universe. Over the seven years after the movie, the only adapted media to be released was a 1997 video-game. This hiatus came to an end in October 2002 when Stand Alone Complex took the air on Japanese satellite station  SKY PerfecTV!. This was a 26-part series, each episode lasting 25 minutes, and was followed in 2004 by S.A.C. 2nd GIG, which had the same format. In turn, the first season was adapted into both a feature-length version, The Laughing Man, and two manga volumes, while the second was also edited down into a feature-length edition, Individual Eleven.

The main advantage the TV series offers over the movie should be apparent: it has much greater scope at which to explore the world of cyberbrain networks, information warfare, and their resulting impact on society and humanity. This is particularly apparent early on in the first series. There does eventually develop an ongoing story arc, focusing on the search for an elite hacker (the “Laughing Man”, who takes inspiration from a J.D. Salinger short story) who is trying to expose a conspiracy between the government and cyber-medical companies. But the series also has episodes that don’t advance this at all, exploring other aspects of life in the technologically advanced society which is 2030’s Japan.

It can also be pretty damn cerebral at times. Even the titlular concept, the “Stand Alone Complex”, is not easy for the viewer to wrap their head around. It’s a little bit like the notion of copycat incidents – except, in the case of the Stand Alone Complex, the original didn’t take place, or at least not in the way perceived by those who copy it. It’s probably easiest to provide an example: “Slender Man”. This was a supposed supernatural creature, belief in which reportedly caused two 12-year-old girls to stab another, a ritual designed to impress Slender Man. But the urban legend in question was actually a piece of fiction, created wholesale by a Internet forum user. This idea informs both seasons, with reality and perceived reality both triggering subsequent actions. It’s sometimes way above my head, that’s for sure.

Another result of the extra room is an approach which occasionally becomes meandering to the point of irritation. On the other hand, you can only admire a show which is confident enough in its own abilities, to have an episode which takes place, almost in its entirety, in an Internet chat room. Another ongoing thread is the growing self-awareness of the Tachikomas, independent AI tanks employed by Section 9. These feature in little vignettes at the end of every episode in the first season. To be honest, I initially found their squeaky little voices fairly irritating and fast-forwarded as soon as the final credits rolled. However, they did redeem themselves with a surprising bit of altruism at the end of the series, and were considerably more tolerable in the second season.

Compared to the movie, the animation is a little less fluid – as you’d expect, given the constraints of cost and time. The budget was reportedly $300,000 per episode, compared to $10 million for the film: so the entire first season, running nine hours or so (excluding credits), still cost less than the 80-minute movie, even allowing for seven years of inflation. The style is also a little different, with the character designs more closely resembling the original manga. This is perhaps most apparent in the look of Major Kusanagi. For the TV version seems quite enthusiastic in the area of fan service, with some of her costumes looking as if she’d just rolled out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, rather than those typically worn by a public servant – see below for an example!

While the feature focused directly on the Major and her quest for identity, the series also uses its greater freedom to become more of an ensemble piece. The Major is clearly still the leader and boss, with skills that surpass everyone else – they defer to her, and it’s entirely understandable. But over the course of these 52 episodes, the spotlight turns at one point onto just about everyone else, from her hulking second-in-command, former Army Ranger Batou, through to Togusa, the member of Section 9 who has undergone the least amount of cybernetic enhancement. This allows it to explore their history. For example, the (somewhat notorious, due to its graphic violence) “Jungle Cruise” episode, had Batou hunting down an ex-military colleague who has become a serial killer.

The second season, while still having some individual episodes, has an interesting main thread which has become particularly relevant in the light of subsequent geo-political events. A refugee crisis has broken out, leading to a large influx of displaced people to Japan, causing tension between them and the locals. A charismatic refugee leader, Kuze, has sprung up, leading a movement demanding autonomy for the island where they are being housed. A right-wing group within the government, led by creepy intelligence officer Goda, seeks to exploit the tension by “false flagging” a nuclear incident as a refugee terrorist act, allowing the group to stage effectively a military coup. While originally inspired by the Japanese reaction to 9/11, it’s easy to see parallels to the current world situation here.

Partly due to this, I’m curious to see how much of the series ends up present in the live-action film. The very first episode includes a hostage situation involving android geisha, which is a part of the trailers we’ve seen. As mentioned, each series was edited down into a feature-length compilation, so could be the basis for the 2017 story – though as I haven’t bothered with those, I can’t comment on how coherent the results ended up. But other aspects of the trailers appear to come from the original movie, so I suspect we’ll be looking at a combination, drawing from multiple elements of the GitS universe. It’ll probably be based more on “what looks cool?” rather than narrative sense!

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, William Frederick Knight

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society
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“Solid State Survivors.”

A rather clunky title for an OAV (original animation video), which came out in September 2006, about 18 months after the end of season two. It’s also two years after the events depicted, with Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) having quit her job as Section 9, and largely dropped off the grid. Batou (Ōtsuka) has taken over her position as S9’s top field operative, with Togusa (Yamadera) the. After a series of suicides exposes a plot for a bioterror attack, the group is on the hunt for a hacker called the Puppeteer, apparently behind it. But the investigation finds the apparent attack was almost a diversion, and uncovers a massive child abduction ring that may be responsible for as many as 20,000 kidnappings.

Even by the standards of a series which has always waxed philosophical, this has some pretty deep constructs. For example, the Puppeteer is described by the Major as a “rhizome”. Wikipedia tells me this is a concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972–1980) project. It is what Deleuze calls an “image of thought,” based on the botanical rhizome, that apprehends multiplicities. Well, glad we’ve cleared that up, then. Fortunately, you don’t really need to understand any of this: basically just think of of it as an example of a computer network becoming self-aware, and acting on its own behalf. Everything beyond that, feels a bit like extracts from a paper by a college student who wants you to know how deep they are.

It’s somewhat better when not vanishing up its own philosophical backside. Probably the best sequence has Togusa becoming the victim of a brain-hack and compelled to make a terrible choice: hand his own daughter over to the Puppeteer, to become one of the abductees (with his memory then wiped) or kill himself. It’s a chilling sequence, and also marks the return of the Major to work with Section 9. She has been carrying out her own investigation, free from the restrictions inevitably resulting out of her official role. It turns out to be connected to the aging of Japanese society – a major problem now, and likely to be worse by the late 2030’s when this is set.

It looks pretty slick, with a budget definitely on the high-end for video animation, and there’s no need to have seen the TV series, for this to make sense. But it’s largely forgettable stuff, and the significant absence of the Major, particularly in the first half, weakens proceedings considerably, robbing it of the universe’s most memorable character.

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Osamu Saka

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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“The ghostess with the mostest.”

ghostintheshell1985Renowned for its influence on just about every subsequent cyberpunk entity, from The Matrix to Westworld, this also remains one of the classic anime movies, more than two decades after its release. The main problem though, is the translation of a densely-packed and heavily notated manga series by Masamune Shirow, into an 82-minute action feature. You’re left with something forced to cram the philosophical aspects into a couple of indigestible lumps – an approach certainly also adopted by the Wachowski Brothers.

It’s set in a future Japan where cyborg enhancements have become the norm, to the point where some people are beginning to question what’s left of their own humanity (the “ghosts” in the hardened artificial “shells”). Among them is Major Motoko Kusanagi (Tanaka), an assault-team leader in Section 9, a federal public security agency. They are attempting to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious hacker, who uses an automated facility to create an entirely artificial body. Section 9 discover that the truth about the Puppet Master’s origins is closer than is comfortable, stemming from the actions of another government department and “Project 2501”. But what, if anything, does this say about the Puppet Master’s goals?

It’s a rather uneven mix of high-paced action sequences and more leisurely scenes. Each work well on their own (helped immeasurably by Kenji Kawai’s score), yet fall short of combining into a thoroughly cohesive whole. The Major might be rather over-fond of waxing philosophical, as shown in the following monologue, during a down-time conversation with her less-enhanced colleague, Batou (Ōtsuka), which feels more like the sort of thing I heard out of my fellow students – typically, the damn philosophy ones – at university, late on Saturday nights after the bar had closed.

Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyberbrain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me’. And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.

While certainly a good summary of the movie’s main theme, it’s the kind of thing best explored in a longer, more leisurely format such as the TV series which were to follow. Here, this kind of rumination seems a bit forced. More effective than the chat is the action. Kusanagi’s talents and ability to take damage make for some glorious set pieces, such as her fight with one of the Puppet Master’s host bodies, and a battle against a tank, possessing vastly superior fire-power. The look of the film is just glorious as well, combing traditional cel animation and computer graphics to an effect rarely, if ever, matched. There was an “enhanced” version which came out in 2008, with upgraded CGI; yet after two minutes, I switched back to the original, where the combination feels more seamless. It’s certainly preferable to much modern anime – I’d rather have something try too hard to be smart, as here, than not try hard enough.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera

Cyborg X

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“James Cameron’s lawyer, on line one…”

cyborgxMaybe the makers of this should just have been honest, and called it Terminaliens. For the amount of wholesale theft that has gone on here is really quite staggering. It takes place in the nearish future after a weapons research program goes haywire, and the cyborg results start attacking humans all over the globe. It’s up to a band of freedom fighters to attack the central computer complex and disable the system before humanity is entirely wiped out. Through in an adorable moppet young girl, who falls under the protection of the heroine, along with some crawling through air-ducts, and you’ve got a homage to James Cameron – back when he was good, rather making three-hour epics about doomed icebergs.

The main thread has heroine Lieutenant Spears (Mauro) rescuing Jack Kilmore (Myers), an X-Corp executive who holds the key to infiltrating his company’s former HQ. You may have to resist the urge to yell “He’s a cyborg!” at your television set, but that’s actually just Myers’s style of acting. There’s also Col. Shaw (Johnson), who smokes cigars and yells a lot, while the nerdy Wizkowski (Stormoen), has a name which seems curiously close to being another Aliens rip-off… Finally there’s even a tough Hispanic chick, Lopez, who – in full keeping with the Aliens approach – is played by the thoroughly non-Hispanic Angie Papanikolas.

One upgrade on Aliens is that Danny Trejo shows up for a bit, as another one of the soldiers, which is nice. We love us some Danny Trejo. He would likely have made Aliens  Otherwise, the rampant plagiarism is all a bit of a shame, since some of the other aspects aren’t bad. The CGI drones which are Skynet’s X-Corp’s surveillance system are nothing to write home about, but the more practical effects are solid, with some surprisingly gory moments. One woman gets the front of her head blown off, while later, a man is cut in half, and left to crawl along the ground, his intestines trailing behind him. Meanwhile, Spears manages to kick ass while looking decent doing it, even when yanking a Very Large Bazooka out of nowhere. Fortunately, supplies of beauty products apparently have not been interrupted by this apocalypse.

This wouldn’t be out of place on the SyFy channel, and stands up decently enough against others of its ilk. If you haven’t seen the Terminator series or Aliens, you would probably enjoy this a good deal more – though if so, that does beg the question, why are you watching the SyFy channel? But I just wish the makers had put more effort into creating a plot that was not so tired and over-familiar. If the resources devoted to this had been applied to an original story-line, it could have been a small gem, rather than feeling like a lame rip-off of genre classics.

Dir: Kevin King
Star: Eve Mauro, Rocky Myers, Adam Johnson, Jake Stormoen

The Darkest Dawn

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“Illegal aliens”

darkestdawnThis is apparently a sequel to a previous movie about an alien invasion of Earth (and, specifically, the United Kingdom) from the same director, Hungerford. While I haven’t seen it, this likely didn’t impact things too much here; I sense it’s perhaps closer to a separate story, unfolding in the same universe, than a true sequel. It’s the story of teenage sisters Chloe (Leadley) and Sam (Wallis), with the former getting a video camera for her birthday – just in time for said invasion to kick off, with their family being separated in the ensuing chaos. Toting her camera, Chloe and her sibling take shelter, then scurry through the blasted landscape, facing the threat not just of the extra-terrestrials, but renegade bands of survivors. For it also turns out Chloe, specifically her blood, is a key to the resistance. What are the odds?

There’s a strong sense of Cloverfield here, with the alien threat glimpsed more in passing than directly. The major difference is probably the human element, since the sisters are in peril from other people, as much if not more than from the invaders. Of course, the whole “found footage” thing has been utterly done to death since Blair Witch – and I think even that was vastly over-rated. Here, it adds precious little to proceedings, and there’s not much which could have been done equally as well (or, arguably, better), with an external viewpoint. It has all the usual issues of the genre; most obviously, why the lead character keeps filming, when on multiple occasions common sense and survival instinct would dictate dumping the camera and legging it. But then, a more conventional approach probably would have led to the production costing a great deal more than £40,000 (approx. 1/500th that of Cloverfield).

The two leads are, I believe, YouTube stars rather than professional actresses, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. They do have a natural and unaffected quality, which helps their characters avoid falling into the irritating teenager trap. But they don’t have much more, and any time there is actual acting required – rather than reacting – then they come up short. While the script does give Chloe a decent arc, going from a typically self-obsessed teenage girl into a focused and determined young woman, the climax feels somewhat undercooked. It does not offer the viewer much in the way of resolution, I suspect because writer-director Casson perhaps wants to return to the same milieu in future.

While I wouldn’t be averse to that, I hope Casson (dear God, I just realized he’s only 22 and has already made and had released two cinematic features) stretches his talents into more than the found footage genre, since too often this is merely a crutch for low-budget film-makers, used to excuse away shaky camerawork and improvised dialogue. There’s some evidence of talent visible here, on both sides of the camera – providing you can get past the likely motion sickness this may cause.

Dir: Drew Casson
Star: Bethan Mary Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Stuart Ashen, Drew Casson

Kill La Kill

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“Not sure if serious…”

killlakillAfter I watched the first episode of this show, I was sure it was a delicious parody of anime shows, particular the “super-powered high-school” genre. It seemed to be taking the concepts of shows such as Sailor Moon, say, and ramping everything up to 11. The violence, in particular, is somewhere beyond Dragon Ball Z in terms of excess, except with copious additional amounts of arterial spray – though people survive far beyond the point at which any normal person would be a desiccated husk. I mean, just look at that heroine’s outfit on the right. They cannot be serious, can they? But the longer this went on… the less sure I was whether it was a parody. If it is, it’s an impressively straight-faced one.

The setting is Honnouji Academy, a Tokyo high school ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin (Yuzuki), who runs the place as a neo-fascist regime, enforcing her will through selected pupils. Her chosen ones are enhanced by “Goku uniforms” of various levels, made from a strange substance called life fibers, which give the wearer superhuman abilities. But into this comes Ryuko Matoi (Koshimizu), a transfer student with an agenda all her own – as well as her own enhanced uniform, a sentient outfit called Senketsu (Seki), and half of a pair of giant scissors, which she starts using to take out Satsuki’s minions. For Ryuko is seeking the killer of her father, the scientist who developed Senketsu, and seems like Satsuki played a significant role in that murder.

There’s more. A lot more. Suffice it to say that just about no-one here is quite what they seem, right down to the life fibers, and by the time you reach the final episode, loyalties and alliances have gone to a completely different landscape. For something which feels like it should be shallow, tongue in cheek and certainly has copious amounts of fan service (albeit being fairly even-handed in its OTT depiction of both sexes), there’s clearly considerable effort gone into the plotting. But, let’s be honest, the main focus here is on the fights, as Ryuko first makes her way up the chain of command toward her nemesis, and then discovers the truth about what’s going on and has to recalibrate her sights. There’s hardly one of the 24 x 25-minute episodes which does not consist of at least one-third major, major animated mayhem, with Ryoko beating the tar out of one or more enemies, and taking as much damage as she receives.

As such, it does get somewhat repetitive – if you’ve seen Ryuko’s transformation sequence once, you’ve seen it several dozen times – and there isn’t much sense of escalation to the action. But it is brashly hyper-energetic, relentlessly female-driven, largely romance free and perfect for viewing in small, highly-caffeinated doses. If only I could figure out whether or not it was intended to be one big in-joke or not, I know whether or not to feel guilty about enjoying it.

Dir: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Star: Ami Koshimizu, Ryoka Yuzuki, Aya Suzaki, Toshihiko Seki